Last night, Alwan hosted acclaimed journalist and author Nir Rosen, in a discussion and book signing of his new book, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World. Having spent the majority of the past eight years living in Iraq and in other Middle Eastern countries, Rosen’s firsthand experiences in the region inform his work. Frustrated with the international community’s current attitude towards Iraq as a won-and-done conflict, Nir Rosen spoke about the current situation on the ground, describing from that perspective what he sees America really leaving behind as it withdraws its troops.
Rosen’s frustration was clear as he began to speak about the problems that still plague Iraq after the American invasion, many of them a direct result of the US’s intervention. Clearly upset with the dearth of coverage western media now affords Iraq within the larger regional happenings connected to the Arab Spring, Rosen attempted to contextualize the rises and declines of conflict in Iraq over the past eight years, beginning with the start of the Iraq War.
Rosen painted a picture of present-day Iraq very different from what US media typically presents as a timely exit strategy from a stable country. Rosen did not dispute that the current government is now stable, as it faces no insurgent opposition, but did not equate that stability with the safety or security of citizens. Rosen described Iraq as being a country with daily assassinations, extreme police corruption, and tense sectarian relations. Some direct consequences of the United States’ entrance into Iraq include the polarization of the country along Sunni and Shia’a lines, as American military forces supported Shia’a militias in their attempt to overthrow the Baathist party, which had in turn strong Sunni affiliations. Once Saddam’s regime was ousted and the US prompted government elections, most Sunnis, in protest of the United State’s involvement in Iraq’s affairs, chose to boycott the elections. The boycott backfired and the Sunni population of Iraq became drastically under-represented in government. This sparked new tensions between the Sunnis and Shia’as, and had a role in igniting a civil war in Iraq that Rosen claims began in 2004, two years earlier than the US media’s reports of the civil war starting. The fighting was largely carried out by local militias, of which many claimed an affiliation with Al-Qaida in order to boost their legitimacy, where no such affiliation existed. During this civil war it was not unusual for random men to be abducted and to be found murdered weeks later, often with some identifying mark to show their Sunni or Shia’a affiliation.
The fighting largely stopped with the declaration of a ceasefire by Shia’a and Sunni militias, which coincided with the timing of the United States’ new surge tactic. US media attributed the drop in violence to their military success, when in fact it had more to do with internal shifts in Iraq. The cessation of wide-spread violence was not symptomatic of the end of sectarian tensions in Iraq; rather it was a result of the Shia’a community’s comfort and stability in Iraq’s highest roles of government. There was no longer a significant Sunni threat, as many Sunni militias had been weakened, and much of the Sunni population had fled Iraq to the relative safety of Syria and Jordan.
Currently Iraq is more severely divided along sectarian lines than ever before. Sunnis have lost much of their political and military power, making them easy targets. Militias easily made the transition from open violence to organized crime, currently carrying out assassinations, car bombings, and the like for those that will pay. The Iraqi criminal-law system as it stands is riddled with bribery, and police corruption is common; many officers make arrests for personal profit. Illegal checkpoints break up the landscape of the city, and US troops stationed in Iraq are rarely seen, content to remain mostly in base camps.
Given this current state of affairs, Rosen contends that the US media’s portrayal of Iraq as an American victory and as a finished fight is fallacious, the reality on the ground being that the US leaves in its wake a country for whom stability only means the stability of control that violent factions have in different sectors of government, state, and civil life. In a country thus divided, with organized crime being rampant, and corruption ubiquitous, Iraq has been left behind a dangerous, and by no means socially stable place.
Rosen went on to discuss the current conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Isreal and Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya. For more insight into his work on these places, and for a more comprehensive account of the United States’ effects in Iraq, please stay tuned for our videotaping of the event to be uploaded here and on our Youtube channel. To purchase Nor Rosen’s book for an in-depth understanding of his perspective on this subject, be sure to check out his book Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.
Here are some reactions of the Alwan for the Arts volunteers to Nir Rosen’s lecture.
“This was one of the most comprehensive but concise overviews of the 21st century Middle East that I’ve ever heard. You can tell he really knows not only the events but the groups and the people in these countries inside and out so you just feel like you’re getting information straight from the source. While it’s nice to be informed, it’s now more frustrating than ever knowing that US media so inadequately reports on Middle Eastern events.” – Bahij Chancey, Intern
“There has been too much emphasis on the conflictual underpinnings of the events unfolding in the Arab world, when one would be better served to see them as the strife of civil society to recreate itself more positively and energetically. Obviously, resistance is rife in the Arab civil space and that is to be celebrated.
Also, there has been too much credit given to Al-Jazeerah, or “Nokia” as opposed to Facebook, Twitter, etc…when in fact revolutions happened in the past and have always found modes of communication, and transmission of knowledge from one revolution to the next is common practice through history, well before social media, which is not to discount the role of the media.
Moreover, in such an overwrought narrative, there is a disproportionate risk of depriving, better yet, stripping away agency from the other, and marking resistance as futile. In other words, power compounds itself, power is always associated with power, and does not work differently. I think that is social over-determinism, far too narrow for the complex fabric of Arab society, of any society.” – Ahmed Issawi, Executive Board Member
“This presentation was useful because it balanced the excitement and hope brought about by the Arab Spring with a testament to the human rights violations, violent sectarianism, and geo-political manipulation that continues in the region. This is not to say that I walked away only pessimistic from Mr. Rosen’s talk. Instead, I am grateful for the work of journalists and researchers like Mr. Rosen whose coverage force us to confront the wider historical picture in the Middle East as we move into a new era in the region. ” – Katie Merriman, Volunteer
“By his own admission, Nir had little that was hopeful to say about the prospects of ending, at least in the near future, the conflicts under discussion. However, his main thesis – that the situation in Iraq (and elsewhere in the region) devolved into a violent confessional conflict in response to external pressures – is an important antidote to the mainstream American view that inter-denominational and inter-ethnic conflict in the Middle East is a millennial condition that can only be managed by oppressive, undemocratic regimes that act as a bulwark against atavistic animosities. Nir contended that the individual actors participating in such conflicts are not motivated by ideological fervor so much as responding to social pressures that are created and exploited by those same oppressive regimes: pressures that stifle civil society and, when a power vacuum is created, lead to social breakdown and factional violence.
The prospect of altering these conditions, and, most saliently in Nir’s talk, the corrosive effects of U.S. foreign policy, may be bleak, but Nir’s recognition that the source of conflict being contingent, rather than culturally essential, is a refreshing and much-needed alternative to the dominant narrative.” – Liz Behrend, Acting Director
Full Event Video
A video of the full event will be posted here and uploaded to our youtube channel soon.